No Proxy War: Stop the Dying

Photograph Source: Mike Maguire – CC BY 2.0

The treaty of Brest-Litovsk was an unexampled practical display of Marxist morality, a vindication of that class-oriented and anti-nationalist world view which the treachery of the Second International had almost destroyed. Lenin gave up to the German Empire a good share of the Russian Empire – land, people, and industrial resources – in order to stop the dying and other futile horrors of the Great War.

– Charles H. George, Revolution: European Radicals from Hus to Lenin (London: Scott, Forsman and Company, 1962, 1972), p. 239

I took a break from writing about the Ukraine Crisis out of concern that the war is pushing numerous other if related domestic United States (US) issues that matter a great deal[1]off the current events stage. But a development eleven days ago compels me to turn back to the death and destruction underway in Ukraine. It traces back to the US-imperial “homeland,” whose rulers are – make no mistake – main currents actors driving crisis in a direction that could bring global devastation.

The development in question is U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s ominous comments after returning from a visit to Kyiv. Austin said that the U.S. wants to see “Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Austin also said that Washington thinks Ukraine can “win” its war with Russia if it receives proper weapons and support from the West.

Questions For Your Liberal Imperialist Aunt

These are the kind of statements that your “liberal” MSNBC-addicted aunt – the one with the Black Lives Matter sign and Ukraine war flag in her window – finds perfectly wonderful.

She’s dead wrong. Austin’s statement and Biden’s recent request for $33 billion to fund the Ukrainian resistance means that the Biden administration and Pentagon are using the conflict in Ukraine to fight a prolonged proxy war against the nuclear superpower Russia. The goal of this proxy war is the draining and perhaps even the destruction of the Russian state.

This is no small matter. Washington is pursuing a strategy that every US administration rationally steered clear of during the Cold War: funding and equipping a European war that risks escalation on the path to a direct military confrontation between the US and Russia. The US and its tool, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) refused to back armed uprisings against the Soviet empire in eastern Europe because they reasonably calculated that the risks of doing so were simply too great: a catastrophic nuclear war.

The fact that Moscow is no longer “socialist” hardly makes the existential danger inherent in trying to weaken and even collapse the Russian state any less severe. If anything, the danger is worse with the Kremlin in the grip of a megalomaniacal neofascist who has made multiple threats to deploy Russia’s nuclear arsenal in response to very real US and NATO provocations.

Your liberal Joy Reid fan of an aunt – the one with the Black Lives Matter poster next to a Ukrainian flag in her front window – will look at you like she thinks you’re a crazy Putin fan if bring up those provocations. But she’s the one who’s out of it. She knows nothing about the relevant history of Washington and its aggressive, nuclear-weaponized European alliance “poking the [Russian] bear” since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whatever one thinks of the monstrous dictator Putin, NATO’s US-led expansion up to Russia’s borders and Washington efforts to incorporate the large and geo-strategically critical Ukraine into NATO have been quite naturally experienced not just by the Kremlin but by millions of Russian people as remarkable incitements. It’s all been very reckless, and you don’t have to be a radical Left anti-imperialist like the present writer to think so. Many US former foreign policymakers and experts, including leading Cold War architects like George Kennan and current CIA director William Burns, warned strongly against such expansion, pointing out that post-Soviet Moscow would view it as an existential menace worthy of potentially nuclear war.

Ask your unwitting warmonger of a nice liberal aunt if she sees any difference between these two criminal wars: (1) the US in 2003 invading and mass murderously devastating a much smaller country that had done absolutely nothing to provoke the US half-way across the world – Iraq; (2) Russia this year invading Ukraine, a much a smaller but strategically critical country – a former possession on its immediate southwest border that has been a great source of Russian vexation and regional insecurity under the influence of the giant US empire for many years. Ask your aunt if Washington would attack and invade Mexico after the United States’ southern neighbor threatened to become part of a joint Chinese and Russian military alliance and if that alliance had already incorporated and placed missiles and troops in a handful of Caribbean states and Canadian provinces. Add in a long history of Russia interfering decisively in Mexican politics.

Ask your Zelensky-besotted aunt if she knows that her hero’s beloved NATO No Fly Zone over Ukraine would mean direct military engagements between US and Russian forces. Ask her if she is at all concerned about Russia’s top diplomatic official Sergei Lavrov repeatedly saying that US and NATO involvement in the Ukraine War is analogous to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Come to think of it, ask her if she’s ever heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis and if she knows how incredibly close humanity came to terminal war after the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles in Cuba to protect Cuba from further US invasion in 1962. (But for the caution and wisdom of a single Soviet sub commander, WWIII might well have been set off.)

The Russians are NOT Coming

But back to Lloyd Austin. What did he mean by “weaken[ing Russia] to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine”? The implication there is that the Kremlin wants to invade other states on its borders, many of which (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) are in the NATO umbrella. This suggestion is preposterous. The Russian military’s terrible performance in Ukraine means that Russia could not seriously imagine attacking NATO now or anytime soon. Other non-NATO countries along Russia’s border – Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia – are positioned how Russian wants them in the global geopolitical order and are thus in no danger of Russian invasion.

Defining Ukrainian “Victory”

A lot depends on what Washington means by Ukraine “winning.” If they mean that Ukraine can keep its independence and the great majority of its current territory and join the European Union, then victory can be said to have already been attained. A peace settlement could and should be worked out on those terms as soon as possible, saving untold thousands of Ukrainian and Russian lives and stopping possible escalation beyond Ukraine and a potential direct conflict between the world’s two nuclear superpowers. Putin failed miserably in his original aim of toppling the Kyiv government and overpowering all of Ukraine. He has retreated to the east.

But if Ukraine “winning” means Ukraine using massive US and Western military assistance to take back all the territory it lost to Russia and pro-Russian separatists since 2014, then we are looking at a prolonged and yet more disastrous war with significant potential for spread and escalation. The Russian population and state will never accede to such an outcome. Putin could never continue atop the Russian state if he accepted that result. He could be expected to act on his nuclear warnings if he feels it is required to avoid such personal humiliation.

And here’s the rub: Austin’s stated US goal of “weakening Russia” and degrading its military suggests strongly that Washington’s definition of victory is full Ukrainian reconquest. Such a goal is of course completely incompatible with a ceasefire and a peace deal. It means keeping the slaughter alive.

Chillingly enough and consistent with the notion that the White House and Pentagon are in fact pursuing a proxy war meant to collapse the Russian state, the silence from Washington and US corporate war media was deafening when in late March the Ukraine government advanced sensible proposals for ending the war.

US-Americans’ Top Responsibility is Their Own Nation’s Imperial Recklessness

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a criminal and barbaric act ordered by a neofascist monster on the false pretexts that Ukraine is a Nazi regime with no legitimate national existence. Masses of Ukrainian workers, soldiers, and citizens are engaged in a noble struggle to expel Russian occupiers and war criminals from their country.

Putin’s regime has murdered thousands upon thousands of Ukrainian civilians and sent thousands upon thousands of Russian conscripts to early graves. Thousands upon thousands of Russians have been jailed for daring to oppose the Kremlin’s imperial war and even for the rapidly established “crime” of calling the super-oligarch Putin’s war of invasion a war and/or an invasion. For these and other reasons, the Russian people should revolt against their nation’s disgraceful, authoritarian, and capitalist government. The sooner, the better.

In the meantime, the people of the US have their own oligarchs, capitalists, and war pigs to deal with. It is the responsibility of US citizens to oppose their own nation’s policymakers, for whom false claims of heartfelt concern Ukrainians provide cover for an imperial agenda in Eastern Europe and Eurasia – an imperial agenda that has long sparked understandable security concerns in Moscow while deepening the domestic political power of Russia’s authoritarian regime. It is reckless and despicable for Washington to use ordinary Ukrainians as bloody pawns in a proxy war mean to “weaken” and even collapse the Russian government on the false pretext that the Kremlin has a relevant desire and capacity to invade countries beyond Ukraine.

Here in the US much of what’s left of “the left” has not performed very well in response to the Ukraine Crisis. A fair number of left-identified folks seem incapable of acknowledging criminal and imperial aggression on the part of any other country than the United States. An especially nauseating care of mostly online “left” putzes with “multipolar disorder” have demonstrated loathsome fealty to Kremlin propaganda by repeating Putin’s nonsense about Ukraine being a “Nazi state” engaged in “genocide.” Some of these tiresome tankies have even gone to the morally suicidal extent of denying Russian war crimes. (Just how do they explain the bodies in Bucha and Mariupol and other Russian atrocity sites in Ukraine? Crisis corpse actors on loan from Hollywood? Faked studio productions in Hollywood or in the UK? Ukraine murdering its own to create atrocities to then blame on Russia?)

But also irritating are social democratish sorts who take any acknowledgement of US and NATO provocation and recklessness as betrayal of the Ukrainian cause. The real “socialist” position, some in this crowd seems to think, is to welcome US and NATO arms and money to fight for “rank-and-file” Ukrainian victory. They don’t like the cognitive tension inherent in admitting that three things might be going on the same time: (a) disastrous and criminal Russian aggression; (b) legitimate Ukrainian resistance to that aggression; (c) disastrous imperial US exploitation and prolongation of the new Ukraine War.

Today as in previous wartimes, holding more than one thought in their heads at the same time has provided a formidable challenge for many lefties.

Let’s hope socialists in the “I support Ukraine” camp can understand the need to define “victory” as something well short of full Ukrainian territorial re-conquest. Bigger aims are not going to work out very well for Ukrainians and others around the world. The counsel offered at the top of this essay by my old British Marxist history teacher C.H. George is well worth heeding. We must “stop the dying and other futile horrors” of this ugly war – and prevent it from becoming dangerously bigger.

“The Real Question is How It Will End”

Keyboard warriors and academics are free to endlessly debate what precisely set off Putin’s invasion and which actors are most culpable for the crime. “But,” as Jeffrey St. Clair recently wrote on CounterPunch, “the real question now is how it will end, who will negotiate the peace, how many people will die before it concludes and how long it will be before the next war starts–since the end of one war invariably sows the seeds for the next.” Let’s try to end this war in a way that helps us prevent future wars. It’s no small order, to say the least. My own sense is that abolishing imperial war requires a fundamental restructuring of society involving the radical replacement of the world capitalist system with international socialism. A “utopian” goal, perhaps, but – I write on Karl Marx’s 204th birthday – the only thing crazier than pursuing it is not pursuing it. For ecological no less than for military (nuclear since 1945) reasons[2], Marx and his astute financial planner Frederick Engels were dead-on correct when they argued in 1848 that it’s the “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” or “the common ruin” of all.


+1. Please see this, this, this and (just yesterday) this.

+2. C.H. George at the end of the 1971 edition of Revolution: European Radicals from Hus to Lenin: “the world-spanning mania for industrialization may have sold our children into the last, most terrible degradation ever visited upon humanity. For the smokestacks belching the filth that is the by-product or our new wealth are rapidly turning our beautiful and bountiful planet into a desolation that cannot support any life at all…The price of technological genius and the universal craving for the American ‘high standard of living’ would appear to be the end of the world…Our only hope is that a massive, truly social morality will demand life before either profits or progress. The base of all future social advance musty surely be the survival of the species! As Lord Ritchie-Calder concludes, ‘there are no frontiers in present-day pollution and destruction of the biosphere. Mankind shares a common habitat. We have mortgaged the old homestead and nature is liable to foreclose’” (p. 275). Many contemporary environmentalists might be surprised to know how common such sentiments were among smart people who had read Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson (among other environmental writers) in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).